The political ads Facebook won’t show you

The 2020 elections may be over, but undisclosed content about U.S. political issues flourishes online

Even as Michigan’s Democratic governor and a senator offer plans to create incentives for wind, solar, and other renewable sources, when individual wind farms are proposed in the state, they often meet neighborhood controversy. Indeed, you might say that wind is a political issue in Michigan.

Enter an anti-wind power paid advertisement for Facebook that ran this year, which declares: “Texas energy is gone with the wind and turbines take a turn for the worse and freeze to a standstill.” This ad was targeted at adults interested in Fox News, Donald Trump, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, and who live in Michigan.

So, is this advertisement “political”?

Freespoke is associated with Delaware-based Freedom Fries, LLC, and has a registered trademark with the US Patent Office as an “advertising company.” The co-founder is a former Republican aide on Capitol Hill.

Definitions of “political” vary, and continue to be an area of ongoing research and discussion for us and others. But controversy over clean energy policy certainly seems to meet Facebook’s own definition of a “social issue” for disclosure purposes in the Facebook Ad Library: “Social issues are sensitive topics that are heavily debated, may influence the outcome of an election or result in/relate to existing or proposed legislation.“

“Social Issue” is Facebook’s term, but is roughly analogous to what is known in election law as “issue ads,” ads that refer to broad political issues. This is distinct from traditional definitions of “express advocacy” in election law, reserved for ads that advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate. Facebook requires enhanced disclosure on sponsors of ads on “issues, elections, and politics,” in the Facebook Ad Library.

However while this particular advertisement meets the “social issue” definition set out by the company, it was not disclosed that way in the Facebook Ad Library. Instead, we discovered this ad via Ad Observer, which collects advertisements from volunteers who install the Ad Observer plug-in tool on their browsers. That’s also how we found the targeting information — the criteria Freespoke chose when purchasing this ad on who should see it.

Our gallery of “Missed Ads” on Ad Observatory displays other examples of advertising that we have collected, along with broad targeting information, that seem to be about politics — encompassing election ads, corporate messaging, and paid discussion of political issues. We also think these ads meet Facebook’s own definition of “political” in that they meet criteria for enhanced disclosure.

Because we are not near a nationwide U.S. election at present, the majority of the “missed ads” we are seeing now would be classified as “social issues.” Here are more examples:

More missed Facebook political ads, with targeting information.

Unlike television and other traditional forms of political advertising, online ads remain a murky area for U.S. disclosure regulations and enforcement. Cybersecurity for Democracy researcher Laura Edelson, along with other researchers, have proposed a standard for universal ad transparency across platforms, so the public can better understand who is trying to influence us, and how.

In Europe, regulators are considering guidelines for online ad disclosure, and in the U.S., the Honest Ads Act would require more disclosure. While there can be vigorous debate over what does and does not constitute political content online, universal transparency is the best way to surface those very questions for public debate. How can we define “political” if we don’t see the full range of online advertising, and is that term even a useful one given how online communication works?

Absent strong required disclosure, tools such as Ad Observer provide a way for researchers and journalists to hold Facebook and other platforms accountable, and explore how mis- and disinformation travels online.

Back to the wind ad: the sponsor, Freespoke, runs a page on Facebook and website with the appearance of a news site, declaring itself to be “Internet Search for people like us.” Who’s “us”? The site features a page full of supposedly-censored right-wing opinion content, and Kristin Jackson, who lists herself as a Freespoke co-founder on LinkedIn, is a Republican advisor and served as an aide to Republicans on Capitol Hill. Freespoke’s parent company is named Freedom Fries LLC, an apparent reference to the jocular renaming of French Fries by congressional Republicans in protest of France’s opposition to the Iraq War.

Political? Yes? No? Potentially interesting and compelling for a researcher or journalist to investigate? Absolutely. Universal ad transparency would provide information on ads like these, but absent that, we will continue to freshen our “missed ads” gallery often, with new examples of ads that are not tagged as “political” by Facebook. Questions? Contact us at info@cybersecurityfordemocracy.org.

Cybersecurity for Democracy is a research-based effort to expose online threats to our social fabric — and recommend how to counter them. We are part of the Center for Cybersecurity at NYU.

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Follow us on Twitter: @cyber4democracy.

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Cybersecurity for Democracy (cybersecurityfordemocracy.org) is a research-based effort to expose online threats to our social fabric — and recommend how to counter them. We are part of the Center for Cybersecurity at NYU.

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Nancy Watzman

Nancy Watzman

Nancy Watzman is director of Lynx LLC, lynxco.org. She is former director, Colorado Media Project; outreach editor, Knight Comm on Trust, Media & Democracy.

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